Duluth Mayor Emily Larson shared some worrisome news Tuesday morning about lead levels found in local household water as the city faces down the estimated $40 million cost of replacing all lead service lines in the city.
“I want to start off by saying that the quality of the drinking water in Duluth has not changed,” said Jim Benning, Duluth’s director of public works and utilities. “The city of Duluth has actually won awards for the quality of our drinking water in the past. And we’re very proud of that.
“We are currently in full compliance with EPA and state regulations related to all of our standards for drinking water," he said.
Duluth is home to nearly 39,000 housing units, and the city has 28,000 water customers. Of those homes, 5,000 have known lead service lines — roughly 18% of the city’s residential water customer base.
Current protocols involve testing 30 homes with lead service lines every three years. In the morning, after the water has been sitting overnight, a single liter of water is drawn, and as long as 90% of those homes sample at lead levels below 15 parts per billion, the city’s water is deemed to be in compliance.
Benning noted that the city last tested at 12 parts of lead per billion at the 90th percentile.
But the Environmental Protection Agency will publish new rules for lead exposure set to go into effect in 2024.
In anticipation of those new standards, the city recently asked for 100 residents with lead service pipes and homes predating 1930 to volunteer for water tests. The request generated intense interest, with around 200 people asking to participate.
The new protocol will involve testing the fifth liter of water drawn from a residential tap after it has been sitting motionless for the evening. Benning explained this type of water sample has typically had more time to absorb any lead potentially leaching out of lead service lines.
Using the new testing procedure, participating local households were found to have much higher lead levels of 31.7 parts per billion at the 90th percentile.
Of the 102 homes recently tested, 30 exceeded the current lead exposure limit of 15 parts per billion.
And a new stricter standard set to take effect in 2024 also will establish a lower lead “trigger level” of 10 parts per billion at the 90th percentile. Of the homes recently tested in Duluth, 49 — nearly half — were found to exceed that future threshold. Cities at the trigger level will be required to “optimize” their water system, using approved chemical treatment methods to minimize any potential lead corrosion. That’s something Duluth already does.
Cities that exceed lead levels of 15 parts per billion at the 90th percentile will be required to enact an action plan, mandating that they replace at least 3% of lead service lines annually throughout the city.
Based on the recent results, Duluth clearly appears quite likely to fall into the second category, requiring line replacements when the new standards take effect.
But the city is not waiting.
Benning and Larson said the city is actively pursuing state and federal assistance to replace both public and private lead lines.
“So, we’re obviously committed to meeting this challenge head-on. We’re ahead of the game,” Benning said. “We weren’t required to do this testing, but we did it.”
"We jumped ahead on the testing, because we wanted to see where we were at," she said. “We got information that would put us out of future compliance. And we want to let people know that. We want to help residents get ahead of this."
In the meantime, the city is reaching out to notify people with known lead service lines. Residents who are unsure may call the city engineering department at 218-730-5200.
People with lead service lines are encouraged to bleed their pipes briefly in the morning before drawing any for human consumption. Benning suggested taking a shower before brushing your teeth.
He also suggested people use cold water for drinking and cooking, as hot water can often contain higher levels of lead.
Benning said the city is working on a credit so residents with lead service lines will not be charged for water they have bled from their pipes in the morning.
“We take your drinking water very seriously,” Larson said. “Our goal would be that we eliminate lead in the service system altogether. But it will take us a little bit of time to do that. I think in the big picture: No amount of lead is the right amount of lead."
Benning agreed that it will take a number of years to replace the roughly 5,000 lines the city has identified.
“We won’t be able to do this overnight,” he said. “That’s why we’re going for the mitigation and lowering the risk. But our current plan definitely involves the replacement of lead service lines on an annual basis until they’re all gone."
The emerging lead problems are common in homes built prior to 1930 and do not seem to be unique to particular neighborhoods, Benning said.
However, residences located on dead-end streets tended to have higher lead levels, according to Kate Van Daele, a public information officer for the city.